Ivanka Trump’s company won provisional approval from the Chinese government for three new trademarks on the same day she dined with Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping at Mar-a-lago.
This will give China monopoly rights to sell her branded jewellery, bags and spa services in the world’s second-largest economy.
Since her father Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Ivanka Trump’s company and fashion label has seen a significant boost in global sales.
It reached record highs this year, despite boycotts and several stores limiting her merchandise, and its distribution is expanding.
The company, which she no longer manages but still owns, has applied for at least nine new trademarks in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Canada and the United States.
Ethics lawyers say the commercial currents of Mr Trump’s White House are “unprecedented” in modern American politics.
“Put the business on hold and stop trying to get trademarks while you’re in government,” said Richard Painter, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer under George W Bush.
While using the prestige of government service to build a brand is not illegal, criminal conflict-of-interest law prohibits federal officials, such as Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, from participating in government matters that could impact their own financial interest.
The scenario underscores the difficulties for the First Daughter to separate business from politics in her new position at the White House.
Ivanka Trump has shifted her company’s assets to a family-run trust valued at more than $50 million to alleviate ethical concerns.
In a statement on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Ivanka Trump brand said all five 2017 Chinese trademarks were defensive, filed to prevent counterfeiters or squatters from using her name.
“Ivanka will not weigh in on business strategy, marketing issues or the commercial terms of agreements,” her attorney Jamie Gorelick said in a statement.
“She has retained authority to direct the trustees to terminate agreements that she determines create a conflict of interest or the appearance of one.”
Meanwhile, her husband has taken steps to distance himself from his sprawling New York real estate business, divesting some of his business interests including his stake in a major Fifth Avenue skyscraper.
But China remains a nagging concern.
Last year, Mr Kushner pursued hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate investments from Anbang Insurance Group, a financial conglomerate with close ties to the Chinese state. After media reports about the deal, talks were called off.
Norman Eisen, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer under President Barack Obama, said Ivanka Trump had many China ties and conflicts.
“Yet she and Jared appear deeply involved in China contacts and policy. I would never have allowed it,” he said.
“For their own sake, and the country’s, Ivanka and Jared should consider stepping away from China matters.”
Ms Gorelick said Ivanka Trump and her husband would steer clear of specific areas that could impact her business, or be seen as conflicts of interest, but were under no legal obligation to step back from huge swaths of policy, like trade with China.
Under the rules, Ivanka Trump would recuse herself from conversations about duties on clothing imported from China, Ms Gorelick said, but not broad foreign policy.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group, on Tuesday expanded the scope of its federal lawsuit against Mr Trump to include trademark approvals from China in its list of alleged constitutional violations.
The emoluments clause of the US Constitution prohibits federal officials from accepting anything of value from foreign governments without congressional approval.
As a White House employee, Ivanka Trump is also subject to the same rule.
“She needs to be careful,” Mr Painter said.
“If her trademarks are anything but routine they also would be prohibited emoluments from the Chinese government.”
Mr Trump has dismissed the suit as “totally without merit”.
Ivanka Trump has 16 registered trademarks in China and more than 30 pending applications, along with at least five marks granted preliminary approval since the inauguration, according to China’s Trademark Office database and gazette.
– with AP